For most of man’s history, slavery was
an accepted institution. Few people questioned the morality of
slavery; it was just the way things were. If you were a soldier
and had the misfortune to be on the losing side of a battle, you
would likely suffer one of two fates: if you were lucky you would
be enslaved rather than killed. I suspect that the earliest slaves
found their way into the institution via this route. It was probably
not too much later that someone figured out that he could make
a living buying and selling slaves. Eventually, demand exceeded
the battle casualty supply, and raids were made for the sole purpose
of capturing people for the slave market. All this began in prehistoric
times and it continued unabated until fairly recently. In fact,
if you look hard enough, you can still find some isolated examples
of slavery today.
In Western Europe feudalism replaced slavery
as the basis of the agricultural society. In the American colonies
slavery reappeared when indentured servitude failed to meet the
needs of agriculture. Africa was the place where slaves were available,
and European slave traders bought African slaves and transported
them to America. These traders did not chase down free people,
most of them of noble birth, and enslave them. They bought slaves.
They bought people who had already been enslaved by other Africans.
The evil of slavery is lack of choice. As a practical
matter, a slave is no worse off physically than a poor free man,
and in some cases he is better off. Even lack of choice is not
a great disadvantage for most men in subsistence agricultural
societies because few choices are available to such men, free
The eighteenth century brought the Age of Enlightenment.
There is room for argument on the overall effect of this “enlightenment”
on mankind as a whole, but there is no doubt that it sounded the
death knell of slavery. Since the late eighteenth century, very
few thinking men have been able to justify the abstract concept
of slavery. In the early nineteenth century the British outlawed
the international trade in slaves and the Royal Navy enforced
the ban. That meant that no new slaves were brought to the Americas,
but the institution was continued because no one knew how to end
it without collapsing the economy. The Civil War solved that problem.
When one loses a war, one expects economic hard times. Eventually
the economy recovered.
Slavery in American history is not a cause for
celebration. Neither is it a cause for lingering communal guilt.
Slavery was an accepted institution from Eden’s exodus to
relatively recent times. I doubt very seriously whether there
is any human being on the face of the earth (including Europe’s
remaining Crowned Heads) who does not have a slave branch on his
family tree. None of us have been slaves; all of us have slaves
in our ancestry; some more recently than others, but we all have
them. I have seen a lot of the world, and I am very glad that
my grandparents decided to come to the United States. In my opinion,
every citizen of these United States should be thankful that his
ancestors came here, no matter what the circumstances of the journey.